How could so many Republicans have been so confident that Mitt Romney would win the presidency when the vast majority of the polling suggested otherwise? Certainly hubris was involved, but there were also two larger problems that continue to persist: the Republican Party’s increasing addiction to Fox News, and the fairness bias in the mainstream media. The former has made Republicans increasingly insular to the base. The latter validates them. Together these two things have enabled Republicans to live in their own right-wing world devoid of the reality.
With the significantly large market share that Fox News and right-wing radio hosts now enjoy, Republicans have found a pool of reliable, friendly pundits with large audiences who agree with their ideas. These pundits are eager to hear their ideas and rarely challenge them. Compare this to potentially being asked tough or damaging questions from a commentator who may disagree with their views, and it’s easy to understand Republicans’ predilection for the conservative echo chamber.
But in doing so, Republicans have stifled their own ability to accept ideas outside their core constituency, and Republican candidates have campaigned on platforms with limited appeal. Make abortion illegal under all circumstances. Create a fence at our border. Send more troops to Afghanistan. Most voters would never support these positions, but many Republicans ran on them anyway at the encouragement of Fox News and their base.
A free exchange of ideas is critical to a healthy democracy. By limiting their interactions to audiences that already agree and think like them, that’s not happening. To make things worse, it turns out that Republican voters tend only to trust Fox News, and viewers who only watch Fox News are actually less informed than people who don’t follow any news at all. So not only are Republicans staying within an echo chamber, they’re actually residing in a less-informed one.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media has played into their ideas through “fairness bias” — that is, the tendency to try to give both sides of every story equal weight even at the detriment of the truth. With rare exception, the media has been unwilling to acknowledge that Republicans have become uncompromising, less fact-driven, and more extreme for fear of being seen as partisan. This is despite the fact that the same cannot be honestly said of Obama and the Democrats. So with the media putting even the most extreme Republican ideas at equal weight with Democratic ideas with massive appeal, it only helps blind Republicans of the extent to which voters would reject their ideas outright.
The fairness bias is also the reason that when Nate Silver’s model on FiveThirtyEight came under heavy criticism. Silver predicted major Congressional Democratic victories and an Obama landslide by accounting for all of the national polling done in swing states across the country, but Republicans argued that the election was a horse race, and so the mainstream media treated both with equal weight. Silver used math, data, and history. Republicans rejected the evidence and went on pure instinct and wishful thinking. But the media acted as if both were equally reasonable opinions to have. The signs were there that Republicans were going to have a rough election night. And guess what? Silver’s predictions were almost perfect. But the media’s unwillingness to challenge just how absurd the Republicans’ assessments were justified conservative sentiment that Romney was going to win and set up the Republicans for enormous disappointment.
These problems won’t magically go away. The question Republicans must ask now is what they can or what they would be willing to do to prevent this from happening again. It’s a difficult task. When you’ve been in an echo chamber for that long, it’s hard to view things any other way. But the key to future Republican success and avoiding a repeat of the 2012 election is acknowledging one important thing: yes, they say perception is reality, but actually reality is reality.